Monday, December 4, 2006

Bone Fish Sam

Bone Fish Sam picked me up at 7am in the lobby of the Westin Hotel on Grand Bahama Island. It was a few weeks ago, and my wife and I were in the Bahamas for vacation. I saw that the hotel offered a guided fly fishing excursion with Bone Fish Sam. I signed up, paid the $250 guiding fee (nobody ever said fly fishing was cheap!) and was told to be in the lobby early the next day. This was going to be my first bone fish expedition.

After we left the hotel, Bone Fish Sam and I stopped at his house to pick up the gear, a few large sinking flies and a fly rod that he loaned to me, and headed to the beach. As we drove, he told me that the bone fish gets its name from the large number of bones in its body, making it not very good for eating. But it is a well-known sport fish.

Picture: Bone Fish Sam with the fish we (he) caught.

Sam said that the reason why the bone fish is so popular is because it is so difficult to catch. That got me thinking. When I spend hours on the stream without a bite, I sometimes wonder why I am chasing these picky trout with an impossibly small hook wrapped in thread and feathers. Why not do something easier with my time? But it is the challenge that I love. If the trout rose to every fly, I would get bored. I would rather be challenged and frustrated than succeed too easily. Perhaps fly fishermen are gluttons for punishment.

Soon we were on a road running parallel to the beach, maybe 150 feet from the water. All of a sudden, Sam says: “There are the Bones!” I said to him: “You can see them from here?” “Yep,” was his reply. I have good eye-sight, but from 150 feet I could not see any fish, only beautiful blue waves. We drove a little further: “More Bones,” he said. Now I was beginning to feel a bit dumb, but I thought to myself: “We are still on the road, maybe when we get down to the beach, I’ll be able to see them.”

No such luck. Sam keeps seeing schools of bone fish, 60 or 80 feet away, and I can’t see a single one. He tells me: “Cast, 1 o’clock, quick,” using the fail-safe clock method to guide me. I take one cast to lengthen the line, and send the fly out there. But it’s too late. “Not fast enough,” he says. After about 15 minutes of this, I realize why bone fishing is so hard. I can’t even see the fish, much less get my fly out there fast enough! Bone Fish Sam is very kind to me and is extremely patient. But I am clearly out of my league. Finally, Sam takes the fly rod, casts to the bones, and in what felt like two seconds, hooks a nice one. He lets me reel it in. And even though I did not catch it, it sure feels good to hold that 3 pound fish and release it back into its ocean home.

Picture: The Fly Fishing Rabbi holds the bone fish.

After a few hours on the beach, Sam took me back to the hotel. I was exhausted, humbled but also strangely content. And so what did I learn from my first bone fishing excursion? I remembered what it was like to be a student, and to feel humbled before a wise teacher and a hard task. As a Rabbi, I often fill the role of teacher, preacher and spiritual leader. I am usually the one who offers guidance and tries to help others. But on the Bahamian beach, I was the lost student who could not even see the fish, much less catch it. I am grateful to Bone Fish Sam for the reminder that in life, we are all students sometimes, and that a good dose of humility never hurt!

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